Relief, that’s the first reaction. Then a touch of astonishment that it’s finally done. You’ve been working on the first draft, making those marks on the blank page or screen for months and now it finally reaches its end. Yes, all four hundred pages of it.
This is swiftly followed by the acknowledgement to yourself of how much work there is still to do. For, however hard it has been to write your first draft, it is only the beginning. Now you have to go back to the actual beginning and start again, re-reading and re-writing.
In some ways the first draft is the most difficult, because the words you are putting on the page or screen are new. There will be times when the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, or anywhere exciting or interesting. Even with a plot sketched out and, in my case, having a synopsis of each chapter’s action, one can write oneself into an impossible place. So, late in my draft, I found one of my protagonists was, literally, cornered and there was no plausible way to get him out of the situation he was in. I had no alternative but to discard most of that chapter, to re-write it and aspects of earlier chapters which led up to it.
But this is what the first draft is about, at least for me. It means getting a consistent, believable and engaging story on the page, including characters who the reader will care about and underlying themes which register without overburdening the story. Developing those characters into three dimensions and bringing themes out further, without banging the reader over the head with them, is what later drafts are for. Capturing the places and times, the subtleties of action and reaction in perfect prose (not that mine ever is), all this can take place once the first draft is done.
I’m sure other, more experienced and better authors are more skilled and simply more efficient than I am and it probably doesn’t take them as long, because they do some of these things as they go along, but they too will create the first draft.
Yet in other ways the first draft is easy. One doesn’t have to care too much about the wordsmithing, this can always be addressed later. Reaching one’s daily or weekly writing targets is much easier, as you don’t have to concentrate on the detail, just getting the words down. Several successful writers of my acquaintance have daily/weekly word targets, but acknowledge that these are more easily met during the first draft.
Recently I read Stephen King’s On Writing and was pleased to find him advising new writers to set themselves writing targets, 1,000 words a day to begin with, something I had used to advise many years ago when I, briefly, taught creative writing. And, in the first draft, a goodly proportion of those 1,000 words might be clichés, but hey, they’re words so they count.
So what’s next? Well, I tend to step back for a short while, then return to the first draft and read it through all at once, trying to take an over view on structure, character and theme. Do I actually have that ‘consistent, believable and engaging story on the page’? What changes do I need to make to ensure that it is so?
And then? Well, that’s when the hard work really begins……